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Ladies on a bench

Our next Government must do more for Britain’s least well-off in every generation

Framing society’s big challenges in terms of “intergenerational fairness” risks oversimplifying the issue.

Our Director of Evidence, Catherine Foot, says the next Prime Minister needs to take long-term policy decisions on social care, accessible homes and preventative health.

The first national audit of intergenerational spending power lays bare serious and growing challenges faced by many in our society, from living standards and spending power to access to good health, housing and jobs.

Many headlines focused on the finding that people in their 20s and 30s are cutting back on non-essentials, while some people in later life are able to go out and enjoy the finer things. But there is more to the figures than meets the eye, leaving our next Prime Minister with difficult decisions to make.

Different generations have faced different economic and social circumstances, and that has affected their chances of being prosperous and successful over their lifetimes. Millions of millenials don’t have the benefit of the bank of mum and dad and face enormous housing costs, heavy debt and insecure employment. Many in their 40s and 50s are ‘sandwiched’, caring both for children and older relatives and struggling to look out for their own wellbeing. And persistent poverty among pensioners is rising at the same time as inequalities in healthy life expectancy widen, but the challenges faced by those older people living just above the poverty line are all too often eclipsed by stereotypes about gold-plated pensions and asset rich baby boomers. 

But I think we must tread very carefully indeed if we are to frame the challenges we face in terms of intergenerational fairness.

There is a risk that the argument could become misinterpreted and oversimplified by others keen to pick a fight between different generations. After all, blaming one group in society for the misfortunes of another is a sadly popular line of argument.

Making current older generations the bogeymen and bogeywomen for issues like low economic growth, woeful housing supply, and the impact of austerity would be grossly misleading. If you want the wealthy to pay more to support the less well-off, then say that. Don’t say ‘older people’ when you mean ‘richer people’. You can play the game of statistical averages if you like, but really, it’s just discrimination.

The challenges presented in the Resolution Foundation’s report affect all of us and require all of society to respond together. Many of the problems the report identifies are in part the result of successive governments’ failure to adequately adapt to our ageing population.

Whatever our age, we all want and need the same fundamental things – decent homes, good jobs, and a long and healthy life. But our chances of achieving that vary starkly depending on where we live.
Seismic shift in age structure

We are undergoing a seismic shift in the age structure of our society and in the length of our lives as individuals. Twenty years ago there were 9.3 million people over-65. Today, it’s over 12 million, and in twenty years’ time, there will be a staggering 17 million people over the age 65. And yet so far the policy response has fallen woefully short of what’s needed to respond to a trend of this magnitude.  

Whatever our age, we all want and need the same fundamental things – decent homes, good jobs, and a long and healthy life. But our chances of achieving that vary starkly depending on where we live. Only 16 out of more than 150 local areas in England are places where both male and female babies born in 2015-17 are likely to reach age-65 without a disability – almost all of them in the South East.

The question is, will our next Prime Minister take the action needed to address our demographic revolution? Will he take long-term policy decisions on crucial issues like social care funding? Ensure we build affordable and accessible homes to meet the needs of the growing number of older housholds? Or invest what’s needed in public health and local government to enable us to keep healthy, active and connected?

Only in so doing will everyone, regardless of income, background or the generation into which they were born, enjoy their right to a long, happy and healthy life.

The State of Ageing in 2019: Adding life to our years

Read more
Catherine Foot
Director of Evidence (job share)